Marijuana is approved for medical use in 23 states, including Maine, but there is scant scientific evidence of its success in treating a range of conditions. That’s because marijuana research has long been tightly restricted by the federal government.
The legal marijuana market — both medical and recreational — is growing. But there is a dearth of evidence of the effectiveness of marijuana for medical purposes. Nor do we know the full extent of the dangers of recreational pot use.
Answers to these question will only come through research, which not only must be easier, but should be fast tracked so state policymakers and voters have better information as they consider increasingly common proposals to legalize marijuana.
In June, the Obama administration began to relax federal restrictions on marijuana research. It removed an extra layer of review by the Public Health Service that was required before any nongovernment funded research on medical marijuana could begin. This review — required before researchers could purchase marijuana — slowed down projects, including one examining the use of marijuana to treat post-traumatic stress disorder.
There is still only one approved provider of marijuana for medical research, the University of Mississippi. Until recently, the school was only permitted to grow 21 kilograms of marijuana a year. Last year, federal regulators raised that to 650 kilograms to meet scientific and research needs.
Despite these changes, it will take years for clinical trials to be scaled up and for their results to be known and reviewed.
In Maine, like many other states, the criteria for being eligible for treatment using marijuana are vague. They include debilitating diseases, such as cancer and ALS, but also chronic pain, nausea and conditions that can be added later by the Department of Health and Human Services.
In 2013, the Department of Health and Human Services denied the use of medical marijuana to treat Tourette’s syndrome because there was a lack of evidence of its efficacy in treating the condition. The decision came from the department’s Medical Marijuana Advisory Committee, which is made up of four doctors who work for the department. The group cited insufficient information about the safety and efficacy of medical marijuana treatment for Tourette’s, especially among children and adolescents, the population among whom the syndrome is most prevalent.
The research that has been conducted has shown mixed results, a recent review 79 studies found. The international group of researchers found “moderate quality” evidence to support the use of marijuana to treat pain and spasticity, but only “low quality” evidence for marijuana use to ease nausea due to chemotherapy or to treat sleep disorders or Tourette’s, according to the review published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The researchers did find that cannabis use had short-term adverse impacts, including dizziness, hallucinations, drowsiness and disorientation.
“Whether smoking or otherwise consuming marijuana has therapeutic benefits that outweigh its health risks is still an open question that science has not resolved,” Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, says in a letter on the institute’s website.
As for recreational marijuana use, the institute warns it can harm brain development and lower IQ. It also can damage lungs and increase the likelihood of being in a car accident.
Maine voters may face two questions seeking to legalize marijuana on the 2016 ballot. They will hear competing claims about the benefits and risks of legalization and pot use in general. It is unfortunate they won’t have better data in hand to know which claims are most truthful.